A Journey to South Africa – Symposium and Multimedia Exhibition Highlights Barnard Students’ and Faculty Mission to South Africa’s Hazardous Vanadium Mines

Diane Dittrick, Creative Director/Producer

New York, NY– Research on the health hazards and environmental pollution of vanadium mining in South Africa will be presented on March 25 by Barnard Professors Diane Dittrick and Timothy Halpin-Healy and Barnard student scholars, who traveled to the small mining town of Brits, north of Johannesburg, in 2003 to study the dangers of this industrial practice.

The trip was spearheaded by Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, a Barnard alumna, who was the whistle-blower on the dangers of vanadium mining while serving on the Gore-Mbeki Commission, which provided U.S. assistance to the then-new South African government, headed by President Nelson Mandela. Coleman-Adebayo, who was later dismissed from her position in the Gore-Mbeki Commission for voicing her concerns about the unsafe mining practices and the involvement of U.S. companies, won the largest-ever settlement against the U.S. government for discrimination. She is still employed at the U.S. EPA as a Senior Policy Analyst in the Office of the Administrator.

A Journey to South Africa , a symposium and multimedia exhibition, hosted by Coleman-Adebayo, will feature a taped message against vanadium mining practices from actor and activist Danny Glover, who is producing a film about Coleman-Adebayo’s life. Barnard’s mission was documented by a South African film company and the screenwriter of Glover’s film. The event will take place at 6 p.m. in the Altschul Atrium of Altschul Hall, and is free and open to the public.

“Barnard students and faculty who traveled to South Africa are the foot soldiers and researchers against the corporate greed and crimes in Brits. This is the first time that student scholars have visited and conducted multi-disciplinary research on this problem reflecting socio-economic, environmental, and political implications,” said Coleman-Adebayo.

Barnard students on the mission included: Hayley Holness ’05, Alexandra Severino ’05, Kendra Tappin ’05, and Alexandria Wright ’05.

“I never knew how immersed I would become in this project when I was first asked to be one of the faculty mentors for this trip. The symposium that I have produced will showcase the research of our students, honor the vanadium mine workers and their families, and acknowledge their pain and suffering. A special feature of the exhibition will be a video “Failure Is Not an Option: The Plight of Vanadium Mine Workers in South Africa,” drawn from the footage shot at the USA/SA Environmental Collaboration Conference we attended,” said Professor Dittrick.

The goal of the group was to study the impact of vanadium on the miners, their families, and on the surrounding community in Brits, as well as to promote awareness of the hazards of vanadium mining in order to mobilize scientific, medical, and legal expertise in support for the victims.

According to Coleman-Adebayo, the United States is the primary beneficiary of South African vanadium. VAMETCO, one of the three largest mining companies in South Africa, is owned by Strategic Minerals Corporation, a subsidiary of Union Carbide.

Vanadium is a low-cost steel strengthener which is highly toxic when mined. South Africa, the only producer in Africa, produces over 17,000 tons yearly of this metal element extracted from ore. It is used in many manufacturing industries from automobile, medical, military, to household appliances. Vanadium mining is one of the only industries of Brits, thus forcing the impoverished mining families to choose between the life-threatening mining and unemployment.

“We need to let the world know about the horrors of vanadium mining against the poor citizens of Brits,” said Coleman-Adebayo. “The effects of vanadium poisoning are devastating: within the first 3-4 months of exposure, male victims experience sexual dysfunction; within a year or two, serious organ failures of kidneys and liver will follow. The poison sufferers bleed from their eyes, ears and genitals. Many suffer from asthma, chronic bronchitis, and other pulmonary ailments. Vanadium miners are rarely provided with masks, gloves, or protective gear by the companies. Due to this, the miners bring the contamination home to their wives and children on their clothes, hair and under their nails.”

While in South Africa, the group attended a multi-disciplinary conference, Capacity Building Workshop on Occupational Health and Elimination of Toxic Chemicals Within Our Communities: The Hazards and Health Issues of Mining Vanadium , conducted research, and met with the families of vanadium victims.

In order to make the Barnard trip possible, Coleman-Adebayo worked with Jacob Ngakane, former Congress of South African Trade Unions organizer, who had initially asked for her help during her tenure on the Gore-Mbeki Commission, in reporting about the human rights violations against the vanadium miners.

Physicist Halpin-Healy said “The South Africa trip was an opportunity to see a young nation and its extraordinary people emerging, with success and vision, from a moment of great historical transition. The Symposium will permit the Barnard women who journeyed there, newly informed about ANC politics, the socioeconomic exigencies of 19th century African mines, as well as the legacy of Apartheid, to share with our community back home this life-transforming experience.”

The funding for the trip was put together by Vivian Taylor, Associate Dean of Studies, who worked closely with Coleman-Adebayo on the development and implementation of the travel plan. The trip was made possible through the support of the Barnard Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and The GE Foundation.

“Marsha presented a unique opportunity for the student scholars to both experience and integrate activism and scholarship. She has been a great mentor for the students and it has been inspirational for all of us to work with someone with such a high level of social consciousness,” said Taylor.

Click here to see the Journey to South Africa newsletter.

Contact: Petra Tuomi, Public Affairs, 212-854-7907

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